For the past two years, I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month, a 30-day challenge that requires you to write a 50,000-word novel during November. I decided to do my own twist on it this year. I committed to spending 90 minutes daily during November revising the novel I wrote last year.
I am happy to report that I have stayed on pace so far. Some days I do 3 hours and some days I do nothing, but I’ve made it through the draft once, cleaning up all the big problems that I already knew existed (e.g. the “SOMETHING BIG HAPPENS HERE” notes).
Unfortunately, this round of revision made it very clear that there were many other problems. I like the first 5000 words. I like the last 25,000 or so. I feel they move swiftly, and I care what happens to the characters. I added about 10,000 words to the first section that will be fine once I clean them up. They’re in first draft form, so they’re necessarily rough. But then there is the whole big middle, another 25,000 words, that is just not that interesting. And if I don’t find it interesting it is hard to believe anyone else will.
So…more work. The good news is that I am starting to get a better sense of what is missing. As I know my characters better I will be able to add some scenes that add depth, and then chuck some stuff that doesn’t need to be there.
As the saying goes: Writing is rewriting. The process requires patience and trust. With fiction, it would be almost impossible to write a perfect first draft, because even if the writer has a very detailed outline, more nuances and layers will become obvious as the characters take up residence in the writer’s brain. They have their own lives; we never know anyone fully the first time we meet. The key brilliance of the normal version of NaNoWriMo is that it forces the writer to get the words out. The sooner the words exist, the sooner the revision process can get started. That is where the real writing happens, and it just takes time.
In other news: A related topic, and no, not about how to make time to write a novel (though that is a good topic too!) There is also the question of why one might make time to write a novel. Writing is my job. I respond to incentives, and experimental fiction is unlikely to ever pay as well as writing and speaking about time management and productivity. However, I really like writing fiction in the same way I like running. I don’t love every minute of it, but on the whole I find it intrinsically motivating. I find that making space for the kinds of work I like can keep me interested in my work over the long haul. The process is its own reward. Second — another running metaphor — I view writing fiction as akin to cross-training. By doing different types of writing, I can keep my volume higher than if I were only doing one kind of writing. Strategies I hone in each kind of writing help me with other kinds: pacing, detail, sentence structure and rhythm, word choice, sensing which sections help an 80k word book and which do not. Practice is practice in all its forms, and getting better only happens when one practices a lot.
8 thoughts on “Revising (a NaNoWriMo update)”
Great that you’re staying on track! It’s funny how true it is that characters speak for themselves. I’ve found this revising process has largely been a complete rewrite. I spent time at the beginning of this year breaking down my first draft and basically extracting an outline, completely rewriting most of the first third. I’m finally at the point where I’m copying and pasting more from the first draft, but this revision will really end up being the first revisable (vs. rewritable) draft. I like your running and cross-training metaphors, too. Very apt!
@Meghan – as I’ve made it through my draft once, I am now seeing that much has to be re-written… oh well. So it goes!
I *just* turned in an article for Random House’s education blog that focuses on the aspects of writing I wish I’d known while teaching. “Revision is where the real writing happens” is something I’ve had to learn on my own, something I know would have benefitted my students if I’d fully understood it back then.
Good luck with your draft!
@Caroline – a good point for students to know. “Good” writers are people who do a lot of revisions. The more revisions you do, the better you get on first drafts…and then you know how to make them even better after that.
Thanks for the good wishes. I made it through the draft and unfortunately right now I think I need some space — which means I may not stick with my NaNo schedule. May have to resume it later…
One of my favorite kinds of cross-training for writing is literary translation, particularly poetry, as striving to convert the effects achieved in one language into another language where those same effects aren’t necessarily achieved by the same means forces you to focus on how language functions and take conscious control of this on a deeper level than one normally does in dealing only with one’s native language. So I’ve been learning a lot about how to use English more effectively by translating some French poetry this month.
@Gwen- good point. I love how a really good translation can re-create the same feel that the original language would have had.
sounds like a great use of the NaNoWriMo challenge! I appreciate the peek into your writing/revision/rewrite process. I’ve always wanted to write a book, but somewhere and somehow I became scared to write. Literally I fear putting words on the page.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s book ‘Big Magic’ was a great read on quieting the self doubt and fear related to being creative, but I really love hearing exactly the steps a person takes to get their words out there. The idea that putting in hard work and time into writing is comforting in a way; now if I could only stop making false equivalency excuses for how I don’t have the time… hmmm
I am making January my personal NanoWriMo. With my side business having taken off the past few months, the kids activity schedules, and my partially completed diy bathroom remodel, I decided to take the 6 weeks (started a couple of weeks ago) to really dedicate getting something’s out of my way. The kids schedules really settle down in January, and I am working extra diligently in getting the house completed so I don’t constantly get side tracked!